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Dean Whitbread 2013

Dean Whitbread 2020

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Written on October 16, 2011, and categorized as Flip side, Technology, Writing.
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For the past six months I’ve been writing long form, mostly fiction, ultimately for publication far from social networks. I’m a pretty good self-trained typist – started using Mum’s typewriter when I was ten, and was the only member of our large family to really see the point of typed letters. I was already a fluent writer, the best in the class, but somehow the process of typing improved my work.

It wasn’t just the formality of type, which transformed my neat but childish handwriting, putting it on the same level as any adult, and putting me in my own mind on a level playing field, which I tested out by stealing letter-headed paper from my friend’s dad, the vicar, and writing ludicrous letters to companies and individuals just to see who would take the bait. It was the way typing slowed me down. It made me think carefully before I typed, because I didn’t want to end up with a clean sheet of paper covered in amateurish correction fluid.

This year, in the knowledge that producing 80 to 100,000 words is not the same as writing 1,000 word blog posts or 20,000 word short stories, I injected greater orderliness into my methods.

My best work always starts by hand, written in a notebook, pen on paper, the long drafts are finished that way. Then as I type up my notes, I begin to organise, edit, add, move and shape the text. It feels quite natural to me to work like this. Committing words to paper using this age-old, lifelong method without any sense of hindrance, except hand cramps which sometimes come after a few hours when the words are really flowing, is without a doubt the best way for me to capture what I am thinking.

This year before I began the serious business of starting with chapter one, I made copious notes, using Evernote to organise my ideas. I also used Scrivener, which for writers is a wonderful piece of software, kitting together separate sections into perfectly-formed manuscripts on compilation, and generally enabling notes to become finished in an organic way, without the need to cover a room with loose paper, marker pen and Sellotape.

I also began to use Dragon Dictate on the iPhone. It’s a free app which does pretty decent speech recognition. I learned to work within its limitations, adopting a strange way of speaking which enables grammar and punctuation.

Walking up and down by the bank of the Glomma with my iPhone in my hand, I proceeded to begin the development of a new way of working which I found liberating. The limitations of the free Dragon app meant I had to write in sections no more than one or two paragraphs, then copy and paste my words into a document – Evernote was good for this. Then I would read through, edit, correct, and continue. I didn’t mind working like this, because it mirrors the way I write.

However, there were frustrations, the most obvious of which was the fact that the free app couldn’t be “trained” to understand that “shit” really means “shit” and not “ship”, for example. In fact, it seemed to have an inbuilt prurience towards all profanity, especially frustrating when you are writing dialogue in a natural London vernacular.

Well used to audio, I began to use my iPhone as a dictaphone, but found the longer passages of recording frustrating to edit. Comfortable though I am with a keyboard, I am no touch typist. So, I researched my options. Nuance it turned out make two different Mac desktop applications for speech recognition, both fairly expensive at 150 quid, one designed to convert recordings, and another, superior application for “live” dictation. This seemed a way of maximising their profit rather than giving me what I wanted, but what the heck, this is my career, I thought, so in the light of there being scant other products and no real competitors, I bought both.

I set up the software: Spelling – UK, Accent – British. I read the manual. Speak naturally, in a place without audio interference. I did the voice training, created a voice profile. Created another. And another. And another.

After several days of editing and re-editing specific words in the sofware’s customisable lexicon, I still couldn’t get Dragon Dictate to learn “fuck”, “shit”, “wank” or “piss”. I have a clear speaking voice, which I am told is, and I know to be, perfectly understandable. I can even fake passable American accents. Even when I did this, nothing doing. Every time, a different false result.

Sitting in my peaceful room, enunciating standard anglo-saxon over and over, I tried to establish this basic requirement of written English. “Fuck” I said. Then I said, “Fuck” in a higher voice. Then in a quieter voice, “Fuck.” Then in a quite ridiculous, elongated voice, stressing the consonants, “FFFFFFFFUCKKKKKK”. Nope. Yes, it recognised “nope”. What the fuck?

I realised at one point that someone had paused outside the window and was listening. Did they think I had lost it completely? I shut the computer, exited the apartment, grabbed a pen and paper, and got the hell out of there.

I will now demonstrate by using Dragon to write a section of this post, putting post-corrections between *asterisks*.

I am now writing this using Dragon. I’m going to try out my sanity *profanity* as determined by speech recognition. Let’s see if this actually produces anything like the language which I am using.

Far. Shit. One. This. *Fuck Shit Wank Piss*

Well, the 1st of those Wills left you see K *was F U C K*. The 2nd of those was SH I T. The rose *third of those* was W a NK. And the 4th of those was P I SS.

Given another shot. Stark shift wank piss. *Fuck Shit Wank Piss* We, to our 4. *Well, two out of four.* Once again. Shock sheet wank piss. *Fuck Shit Wank Piss*

Why this software Dunmore *doesn’t* want to acknowledge Anglo-Saxon I do not know but it goes beyond the limitations of speech recognition, I sincerely believe.

End Dragon-written prose.

So, here’s what I want from speech recognition and dictation software.

I want all the words in my working lexicon to be recognised, including common anglo-saxon so-called profanity.

I want to be able to record an audio file in standard conversational English and play it into speech recognition software, which then produces accurate, editable text.

I want the same live dictation software to be able to import and translate any well-recorded audio file either on the computer, or anywhere on the internet.

And, I want my money’s worth – I spent three hundred quid on software which really doesn’t work very well, even when you really carefully follow the instructions.

With the arrival of Apple’s Siri, I am sort of heartened, but also put in mind of my summer frustrations. Maybe I will be able to return to this mission, so promising but then so rudely interrupted, and continue exploring and developing a new writing methodology. Perhaps Siri will not censor me, although Apple’s anti-pornography cultural construction, which leads them to equate breastfeeding with pornography, causes me to doubt that. We’ll see. But because of my experiences, Siri will not be a reason for me to buy the new iPhone 4S.

The 8 megapixel camera, that’s a different story.

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  1. Posted 1 December, 2011 at 10:37 am | Permalink

    How To Curse Effectively…

    Warning: contains the F, C, S, B, and other words…….

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